2018 was a somewhat bizarre year in my NYC culinary journey with my wife Jun. While there are definitely quite a few number of restaurants that Jun and I liked, it was also hard to think of exceptional and memorable meals that we had had together before. Perhaps, having lived in the city for more than seven (and in Jun’s case 12) years, maybe we are becoming spoiled and have built this impossible standard of excellence. Or, since our marriage, we certainly have started going out less and less, and therefore might’ve missed some truly outstanding restaurants hidden somewhere that we can call dining destinations. That being said, 2018 was also a year where we got to see a depth of new good restaurants that we hadn’t seen in 2017, with such diverse food offerings as modern Korean tasting menu, Japanese shabushabu, Chinese interpretation of Creole dishes and Persian cuisine. In the face of punishing pressure from landlords, restaurants not sponsored by giant corporates have learned to adapt to operate in more modest scales while also drawing crowds through the kitchens’ unique approaches to their crafts. In addition, I have become more willing to try pop-up dinners; previously, I was reluctant to try these places as they don’t give me that many opportunities for multiple visits due to the transient nature of these events but then with New York City restaurants opening and closing on such short time period these days, that justification became more tenuous. Chefs Club, in particular, has been a revelation to Jun and I, as we have been able to try phenomenal dishes from acclaimed restaurants in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, as well as from a highly accomplished Japanese chef who worked in Paris. In sum, 2018 was still a productive year, and here are the top dishes I have tasted (based on the order I had visited the restaurants).
Top Dishes of the Year
1. Sopressini and Smoked Mussels @ Don Angie – KenScale 8.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/01/19/don-angie/)
Don Angie was one of the hardest tables to get in 2018. The online reservations up to one month ahead are instantly booked and the only way for Jun and I to get seated right away was to try the bar seating by showing up at 5 p.m. Despite all that trouble, Don Angie was one of the best restaurants in 2018 we had been to in the city thanks to its smart Italian cooking that is simply irresistible. Start any meal at Don Angie with this amazing pasta; Jun and I had not quite had anything like the sopressini with an uniquely strange and sour combination that felt unfamiliar at first but over time became such a joy to our taste bud.
2. Prime Rib Braciole @ Don Angie – KenScale 8.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/01/19/don-angie/)
Jun and I have had many outstanding meat dishes in 2018, but it’s hard to top this beauty from Don Angie. The prime rib could really beat most other steakhouses in the city in texture and temperature, and I really liked the fact that the addition of tomato polenta on the side allows me to adjust the flavor of the meat. Suffice to say Jun and I had never brought leftovers from restaurants to our home but this time we made an exception and still enjoyed the meat the next day.
3. Butterfish with Gochujang Bouillabaisse @ Ato – KenScale 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/03/06/ato/)
New York City has recently experienced openings of high-end sushi and Japanese restaurants, but Ato is not quite like those expense account establishments. Yes, the omakase menu Jun and I had was not cheap, at $185 per person, but we didn’t regret splurging for this restaurant that brings a ton of creativity in the way that the kitchen brings Japanese sensibility to ostensibly French cuisine. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a dish like this butterfish with a wonderfully spicy kick of gochujang (although not sure why the color is yellow instead of red from the traditional pepper paste) bouillabaisse broth at a place like, say, Le Bernardin.
4. Smoked Trout @ Chefs Club (Dabney) – KenScale 8.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 9.0/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/03/23/chefs-club-dabney/)
As noted above, Chefs Club has provided Jun and I with some of the best meals in 2018, and we will continue to come to the space whenever there is a new kitchen team in residence. It’s been a while since I have been to Washington, D.C. (which is somewhat embarrassing given that I went to college there), but next time I come, I will make sure to check out Dabney after their pop-up dinner inside the Chefs Club space blew us away. The standout dish of the night was the beautiful smoked trout that marvelously worked together with heirloom beans, chorizo, farm egg and pickled onions in the surroundings. It is a beautiful reinterpretation of the Mid-Atlantic cuisine.
5. Lamb Shawarma Hummus @ Miss Ada – KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/03/30/miss-ada/)
Just like last year, Jun and I have been going to Brooklyn more and more often hunting for unassuming, neighborhood restaurants that turn out to be awesome culinary gems. In 2018, Miss Ada was one of those restaurants, delivering a very satisfying Middle Eastern fare without any pretense. If you happen to visit the restaurant one day, you will have committed a cardinal sin if you miss the lamb shawarma hummus here. Just look at the dish and imagine soft texture of hummus and juicy lamb meat in your mouth. Yes, that is what I thought; you don’t want to miss this!
6. Squid Confit with Mussels, Black Barley @ Simon and the Whale – KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/04/30/simon-and-the-whale/)
Gabriel Stulman is one of the smartest restaurateurs in the city, having elevated several of his humble establishments in West Village into legitimate dining destinations. It was a bold undertaking for him to stay away from what has worked best so far and open a new restaurant inside a Midtown hotel that has drawn young, hip crowds largely for its chic ambiance, but Simon and the Whale delivered a loud statement that the core culinary value of his restaurants won’t be gone anytime soon. While the foods on the menu look rather safe, the execution was done beautifully well, such as from this squid confit with mussels, black barley and mushrooms that you might’ve seen elsewhere but you will probably struggle to remember if you have had a dish this good.
7. Poulet Green Circle Heritage Roti @ Chefs Club (Sota Atsumi) – KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/06/12/chefs-club-sota-atsumi/)
A lot of talented Japanese chefs are drawn to French cuisine (both countries have a lot in common than you think in terms of culinary philosophy and dedication to excellence), and Sota Atsumi is one of the young stars in the Paris dining scene, having made his name at Clown Bar before deciding to open his own restaurant. Jun and I were very lucky to try his concept during his Chefs Club residence in between. I’ve had a fair amount of outstanding chicken dishes in 2018, but I can’t still forget the memorable dark meat with an addictively smoky sensation.
8. Dover Sole @ Le Coucou (Revisit) – KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/06/15/le-coucou-revisit/)
Le Coucou is the type of restaurant I wish thrives for a long, long time in New York City. It’s sophisticated yet still accessible French cuisine is what makes the restaurant such a perfect place to enjoy on a variety of occasions. Since our visit a couple of years ago, Jun and I had decided to make a return trip, and it was just as memorable as our first. We didn’t try the dover sole last time we were at the restaurant, and I’m very glad we got to try it this time, with the fish cooked to perfection and the creamy broth that wonderfully complemented it.
9. Summer Lamb Stew @ Frenchette – KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/07/31/frenchette/)
Frenchette was one of the hottest openings in the city in 2018, and for good reasons. The former veterans of the celebrated Balthazar and Minetta Tavern have done a great job elevating the classical French bistro cuisine to something more exciting with the use of unexpected ingredients and thoughtful execution. There are a lot of standout dishes from scrambled eggs with escargots to duck frites that are extensively covered in critics’ reviews, but the one dish I really loved was this lamb stew. Nothing fancy, just a delicious stew with very good balance in flavor. This is the type of dish that makes French bistro cuisine such a timeless one.
10. Eggplant with Chili @ Birds of a Feather – KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/07/31/birds-of-a-feather/)
Jun and I are not afraid to shy away from spicy dishes like those from the Sichuan region of China. New York City already has many of stand-out Sichuan places, and one of the best is in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. I already knew Birds of a Feather would be good given its pedigree from Café China; what I didn’t expect is how much I would end up enjoying this spicy eggplant dish. No wonder Jun looked up online after our meal to see if she can find a recipe.
11. Yuba Shabu with Uni @ Shabushabu Marocon – KenScale: 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/08/25/shabushabu-macoron/)
Shabushabu Macoron has been received with acclaims from virtually every critic out there in the city, and how can you blame them when you have this pampering experience of being served the traditional Japanese hot pot dishes from the chef herself? For Jun and I, we ultimately decided that we would rather have the opportunity for a little more DIY experience (as a typical shabushabu meal does), but there is no denying that there were some dishes that could come back on, such as this mouth-watering combination of tofu skin with sea urchin that just popped in my mouth with a ton of excitement.
12. Lobster and Crawfish @ Le Sia – KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/08/31/le-sia/)
It is a great time to eat Chinese food in New York City these days, with all these unique concepts happening (especially in the East Village neighborhood). I certainly didn’t realize that crawfish was such a big thing in China, but am not surprised that Le Sia is constantly packed with crowds from all types of backgrounds looking to get a taste of the “Chinese Cajun food” here. Do yourself a favor: order a bunch of seafood, not just crawfish for the main pot and don’t be afraid to go a little bit more spicy than your usual tolerance (and as curious as you may be, avoid adding Chinese breadsticks which do not add anything other than extra calories).
13. Spicy Cuttlefish with Fried Rice @ Chefs Club (Fat Rice) – KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/09/01/chefs-club-fat-rice/)
On my epic gastronomic tour to Chicago more than three years ago, Fat Rice was somewhat overshadowed by all the other great restaurants I went to, and I certainly under-appreciated the great things that the kitchen was doing at that time, blending Asian and Portuguese influences into something truly unique. I try to avoid these “fusion” places because they often fail at seamlessly integrating different culinary traditions, but I’m very glad I decided to check out the pop-up from Fat Rice at Chefs Club with Jun. The Fat Rice dinner was even better than I had remembered, with distinct flavor that is not what Jun and I were used to when we go to other East/Southeast Asian places, such as this magnificent spicy cuttlefish with fried rice where multiple ingredients were shining altogether in one great harmony.
14. Maitake Mushroom with Sea Urchin @ Blanca (Revisit) – KenScale: 8.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.75/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/09/26/blanca-revisit/)
Blanca has deservedly been one of the best restaurants in New York City during its short history. No restaurant has quite captured the ethos of sophistication and Brooklyn “cool” factor the way Blanca has, and the kitchen’s ingenuity and bold experimentation with different ingredients still amazed me on my second visit, this time to celebrate Jun’s birthday. Our favorite dish of the night probably belonged to this maitake mushroom, sea urchin and Asian pear where each ingredient’s different texture combined into a marvelously wholesome dish.
15. Fish Fillet Mifen @ Hunan Slurp – KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/10/13/hunan-slurp/)
One of the most welcome additions to Chinese dining scene in New York City is the previously unknown rice noodle called mifen. And one of the restaurants that make the best mifen soups is probably Hunan Slurp. When Jun and I tried the fish fillet one, we were pleasantly surprised with the aromatic broth of the bowl that would be a perfect meal on any given chilly autumn or winter night. We were eating two other dishes that were rather spicy in flavor, so the way the broth neutralized that strong sensation was quite something to experience.
16. Vanilla Soufflé @ Manhatta – KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/10/30/manhatta/)
Who says a restaurant with a view always sucks? At least Danny Meyer has embraced a bold challenge to overcome that cliché, with Manhtta that is thankfully located only a few minutes from our home. When you walk into Manhatta, you will likely be more captivated by the view outside than the food, but then you will change your mind once you try their decadent vanilla soufflé. Certainly my sweet tooth wife absolutely loved the dish, confidently declaring it is one of the best she’s had in NYC.
17. Black Sesame Curd @ Oxomoco – KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/11/30/oxomoco/)
Oxomoco is one of the hottest openings in New York City in 2018 for its take on the increasingly popular Oaxacan cuisine of Mexico. Jun and I enjoyed most of the dishes we had tried, but we unanimously agreed that the black sesame curd was our favorite dish (with, for me, the wonderful chicken a close second). We were very impressed with the way the soft curd worked together with delightful sesame crumble and refreshing concord grape raspado (think Mexican shaved ice). A simple yet powerful dish, indeed!
18. Traditional Persian Ice Cream @ Sofreh – KenScale: 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/12/16/sofreh/)
2018 was the first year that Jun and I encountered the cuisine of Iran that is still way underrepresented in the U.S. For that reason alone, what Sofreh is doing in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn is worth checking out. The base is unmistakably Middle Eastern fare that you may be familiar with, but there were certainly twists here and there that shows Persian cuisine’s versatility. While most of the savory dishes were good to great, I still wonder why saffron is not used more often in food in general as this awesome saffron ice cream reminded me.
19. Maesaengi Soup with Hokkaido Uni @ Atomix – KenScale: 9.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 9.0/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/12/27/atomix/)
As a native Korean, I’m very happy to report that Atomix is the best restaurant Jun and I had been to in 2018. We were thoroughly impressed with the way the restaurant turned Korea’s culinary tradition into an elegant modern tasting menu. It was very clear that the kitchen led by the chef had immense experience with using different ingredients to make each dish really shine on its own. I certainly haven’t seen anyone attempt to use a traditional Korean seafood (maesaengi) as the base for an aromatic pork broth soup that also includes garlic custard and sea urchin. If there is such thing as the perfect soup, this might very well be it.
20. Braised Wagyu with Fermented Pepper @ Atomix – KenScale: 9.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 9.0/10) (https://kenscale.com/2018/12/27/atomix/)
Korean BBQ is now a large part of New York City dining scene for Koreans and non-Koreans alike, but these places often do not capture the subtle art of meat cooking in Korea’s tradition. After you try the braised wagyu at Atomix in a blindfold, I bet you will think the dish came from one of the best fine-dining restaurants in the city. The texture of the meat is already mesmerizing, but add a dip of fermented pepper and put it in a lettuce wrap with rice. You will think these couple of bites might be the best you’ve had in your lifetime.